Advertising Claims: A Pandemic Outbreak

May 20, 2009

H1N1, the influenza virus formerly known as Swine Flu, has made its way around the globe, leaving a trail of frightened consumers. They want to know how to protect themselves and their families—and whether there are any products they can buy to help.

I suppose it was to be expected, but there have been a rash of advertising claims creeping up in the marketplace from marketers touting their products as somehow preventing people from contracting the H1N1 virus or even treating the virus.

These claims are spreading over a range of industries. Just the other day, I received a press release for a hand sanitizer with the headline, "Guard Against Swine Flu with a Moisturizing, Aromatherapeutic, Eco-Friendly Hand Sanitizer."

The link between the advertised products and their protection against swine flu is weak—and in many cases, false. It seems pretty obvious that buying a fancy hand sanitizer isn't going to save me from getting the virus.

On their Web sites, FDA and the Federal Trade Commission warn the public of Internet sites and other promotions "that claim to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat, or cure the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus." Most of the products making such claims are being sold on the Internet, via illegal Web sites, the agencies stated. The agencies warn that any companies making such claims face enforcement action.

"In conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, the FDA has developed an aggressive strategy to identify, investigate, and take regulatory or criminal action against individuals and businesses that wrongfully promote purported 2009 H1N1 influenza products in an attempt to take advantage of the current public health flu emergency," said Michael Chappell, acting FDA associate commissioner for regulatory affairs.

The dietary supplements industry can rest assured that its leaders are acting responsibly. On May 1, the presidents of leading trade associations banded together to issue a press release advising against the use of dietary supplements as a cure for H1N1 virus.

In the press release, a letter from the association presidents stated: "The trade associations of the dietary supplement industry support the responsible sale and use of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplements. We are unaware of any scientific data supporting the use of dietary supplements to treat swine flu. Furthermore, federal law does not allow dietary supplements to claim to treat any diseases, including swine flu."

The letter was signed by the presidents of the following associations: The American Herbal Products Association, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the Natural Products Association, and the United Natural Products Alliance.

The letter further encourages marketers and retailers of dietary supplements to refuse to stock or sell any supplements that are presented as treating or curing the virus. Making such a statement was a smart move. It's a preemptive strike against any negativity that could taint the dietary supplements industry should some marketers start to make illegal claims regarding swine flu.

On another note, I started to think about the similarities and differences between price gouging and marketing a product as a wonder drug during times of public panic. Both take advantage of fear and discomfort. However, selling $1 umbrellas on the street for $5 if it starts to rain, or raising the price of batteries during a power outage aren't quite the same as promising that a product will save lives if it won't. Making those promises, maybe even insinuating those promises, is wrong in every way. I'm glad that our industry is speaking out against it.

Jennifer Kwok
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